The Dark Garden – E R Punshon
This is the 16th book in Ernest Punshon’s Bobby Owen series, set in June 1940 and published in 1941, and is set in Wychshire, to whose force Bobby Owen has been seconded from Scotland Yard. As there is a war on, we find him short-handed and struggling to keep up with the paperwork that the new wartime regulations bring along with them. He has little time for a local farmer, Osman Ford, who alleges that the local solicitor, Nathaniel Anderson, is refusing to hand over to him the money from his wife’s legacy and believes that it has been misappropriated. Ford gives the impression of being a hasty, intemperate man.
A little later, Anderson is found dead with a bullet lodged in the back of his head. Has Ford taken his revenge, knowing that the other partner would be more sympathetic to releasing the money? What seems, initially, a fairly simple case becomes more complex at every turn. It seems that Anderson was not a popular man, had his own dark secret (he was living in sin with a girl from the office, Anne Earle (gasp!) and there were several in his office who had a grudge against him and a credible motive for doing away with him. Owen has his work cut out to make sense of the web of intrigue and, given his staffing problems, has to do much of the leg work himself. Money, though, is the root of all evil and following it may just hold the key to the mystery.
In truth, I sensed who the killer was fairly early on in the course of the story, despite Punshon’s best efforts to throw unexpected twists into the narrative. From what seemed a fairly unpromising premise, he did manage to hold my interest as Owens investigations threw up more motives and secrets in a community that was full of characters seething with passions, obsessions, and jealousies. It read more as a thriller than a straight-forward piece of detective fiction and was none the worse for that.
There were two features in the book that rescued it from being just an OK novel. The first was the denouement which was a well-written and dramatic set piece in which all the key suspects, including the culprit, were, somewhat improbably, blundering around in the dark in a deserted garden. There were lashings of melodrama and even a little humour, whether intentional or not, as Owen finally pulls all the pieces together and makes sense of it all.
The other was the character of Anne Earle. Her lover had been killed and she was determined to bring his killer to justice, even if she had to do it herself. An intense, spirited woman who, rather like a Fury from Greek myth, will stop at nothing. Her story is more complex, though, than she realises, and its resolution is the sort of material that Sophocles and Euripides would have made a masterpiece of.
Punshon is a sadly neglected writer and his Bobby Owen stories provide the sort of escapism that appeals even to a modern readership. Dean Street Press are to be commended for plucking him out of obscurity with their reissues.